“Very nice, very nice…” Dr. Carole Nash says, peering closely at the sherd. “Late Woodland from 1000-1400 AD, nice patterning… see if you can find more.” She carefully labels a brown paper bag with information and places the artifact inside.
The sun beats down on the canopies at the White House Farm but the archeologists don’t seem to mind as they brush soil away from the sides of the test pits and search diligently for clues to the past.
It doesn’t take much to excite them – the smallest piece of porcelain, a fragment of glass, a nail. Little items elicit big responses.
The Massanutten Chapter of the Archeology Society of Virginia has come to Luray, Virginia for a week-long dig at the historic White House located next to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. The limestone house where they are searching was constructed in 1760 by Martin Kauffman II, a Mennonite and later, a Baptist preacher.
With over 250 years of European history to discover, the group is trying to figure out how the Kauffman family lived. Where was the privy? Was there a kitchen outside or inside the house? How did they use the vaulted cellar so common to early German architecture? Where was the barn, chicken coop, woodshed, garden?
A week is not long enough to answer these questions and in fact, the discoveries generally bring up additional intrigue. The centuries unfold in the ground as the test pits get deeper. Native American artifacts are also unearthed, dating back thousands of years.
The White House Farm is located at a very strategic geographic place: The river narrows, making an easier ford and hence, Native Americans used it as crossing point. It later became the main Shenandoah River crossing on the New Market to Sperryville turnpike.
“Native people were here for 15,000 years, living in settlements 1000 years before Europeans arrived,” explains Dr. Nash, professor of Archeology at James Madison University and president of the Massanutten Chapter of the Archeology Society of Virginia.
The expanse of time is reflected in the flint from a French flint lock rifle and the Civil War items uncovered – a bullet known as a minié ball and a brass button, possibly from a soldier’s uniform. In May of 1862, General Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate troops marched across the bridge within eyesight of the White House on their way to the tiny settlement of Hamburg. From there, they moved north to attack the Union forces near Front Royal. Jackson ordered the burning of the White House bridge in order to thwart the army which reformed and came after him as he retreated to the south.
For the first days of the dig, the group finds a jumble of time periods due to the agricultural use of the field. A few photos show corn growing next to the house, indicating that the years of plowing had moved and resorted the items, making it more difficult to place them in sequence. Even the age of the house was in question as, at first, none of the artifacts found were earlier than about 1790.
Dr. Nash decided to hire Bobby Vogt, a neighbor with an excavator business to dig a test trench in order to better understand the history of flood deposition. The watershed of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River next to the White House is 1372 square miles, meaning all the surface water runoff from the high mountains flows into streams and tributaries, eventually joining with the river. Such large volumes of water can carry large sediment loads which the trench revealed. Rich, sandy bottom land sediment extend down at least 6 ½ feet on the south west side of the White House.
A large amount of the sediment was likely deposited in the great flood of 1870, the largest and most destructive flood Page County has ever experienced. However, according to the National Weather Service, even earlier floods have been recorded, including one which occurred in May, 1771, just 11 years after the White House was constructed.
The archeologists proceed with care at each stage of the dig, always organized and approaching their work with scientific curiosity and protocols. Volunteers gently remove the soil, find the goodies, label brown paper bags and sort them according to location. Workers at tables in the shade of the two maple trees, carefully wash the items and lay them out on screens to dry. All the artifacts will be classified and catalogued at James Madison University then returned to the White House Farm Foundation for safe keeping. Dr. Nash will write a report on the findings with plans for future excavations.
“Rediscovering the truth, that is what archeology is all about,” said Dr. Nash. “I have been doing archeology in the Shenandoah Valley for the last 30 years. This [site] is a dream come true for an archeologist.”
“This is one of the most beautiful places we have ever held a dig,” says Laura Wedin from Blacksburg, Virginia. She laughs at the heat, labeling herself and her friends literally the “hot ladies of archeology” as temperatures reach the upper 90s at the end of the week. The volunteers who come to the White House Farm Foundation for the dig are tough, braving the heat and surviving a massive wind storm as they camped next the Shenandoah on Friday night. These are the folks who don’t mind getting dirt under their nails and who carry camp saws in the vehicles, just in case a wind storm blows a sycamore down in their path.
“We are all different – some of us are into genealogy or research or digging,” says Wedin.
“My grandkids think it’s cool I go out and dig in the dirt,” says Linda Waggy. “It’s like digging in a big sandbox.”
Just then, someone calls out “Wow! Look at this!” and the group immediately migrates to the volunteer standing knee deep in the test pit, ready to see what new treasure has just seen daylight after hundreds of years.